Commentary: Bill Clinton’s offensive notions about Israel’s Russian and Moroccan immigrants
By Ira Sharkansky
JERUSALEM–Another one of America’s presidential has-beens is causing a stir in the Holy Land. It’s not Jimmy Carter this time, but Bill Clinton. The unpleasant surprise from the mouth of someone thought of as a friend, reasonably bright, and socially adept is that the right-wing and settler-friendly Russian immigrants are a major barrier to peace; Moroccans are easily swayed by leaders and cannot be counted on to help, and it is the Ashkenazim that right thinking people of the world must rely upon.
“Wow” and “Oh My God” are the only responses that come to mind to the comments Clinton reportedly made in New York during a roundtable at his Clinton Global Initiative
Imagine an Israeli leader talking in public about the intelligence of African Americans.
Clinton and that imaginary foolish Israeli might be assiduous enough to find some data to substantiate what they say, but no politician (or perhaps anyone else) in their right mind should express such things, and certainly not in public.
Whether he knows it or not, Bill Clinton targeted for condemnation the two largest Jewish ethnic groups in Israel. There are Ashkenazim in the present government and among its supporters, but if any Israelis are most likely to be found in the left wing parties that are out of the loop, it is the well-educated upper-income Ashkenazim who seem to fit Clinton’s description as the most preferred.
What the former president has done in the short run is to excite the leaders of Israel Beitenu, the second largest party in the governing coalition and the most prominent home of Russian-speaking voters. SHAS is also a major player in the government. Its parliamentary leadership and the bulk of its supporters are Moroccan.
One of my Russian-speaking good friends is significantly to the left of center, and even he may be upset by Clinton’s remarks, along with left wing Moroccans who are leading members of the Labor Party. All told there are about a million Russian speakers and perhaps another million who trace at least part of their families to Morocco. That’s some 30 percent of Israelis who Clinton has insulted.
Will this count for anything, other than miffing more than one-third of Israel’s Jewish population? (For someone as politically inept as Bill Clinton, one could describe the Jews as the politically relevant population of Israel.)
We are in the realm of speculating, but that is usual in politics.
Clinton is attached to the American Secretary of State. Could his blunder reduce her weight in the calculations of Israeli leaders? One can count on some nasty remarks, and maybe more than that, the next time she screeches her commands in the direction of the Israeli government.
Clinton’s timing is not good. Not only are we at the expiration of the freeze declared for building in the Jewish settlements of the West Bank, and the repeated threat of Palestinians to leave the talks, but the last couple of days have been especially tense. A guard at a public facility in East Jerusalem fired his weapon when threatened by a mob of stone throwers. He killed a Palestinian youth who was participating in the mayhem. Protests spread to several Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem, and the police stormed up to the Temple Mount. Varda and I did our walk around the neighborhood last evening to the sounds of stun grenades from Isaweea, and a police helicopter circling between nearby Arab neighborhoods and us in between.
Friday will be difficult with the usual tens of thousands of Muslims who come to pray at al-Aqsa (Temple Mount), and the Jews assembled for Sukkot rituals at the Western Wall just below. If the stones start falling on the Jews, all bets are off. One of the thugs among the political leadership of the Palestinians has said the third intifada has begun. (Not all members of the Palestinian leadership deserve the label of “thug,” but at least a couple of them do.)
It may be early to declare the start of an intifada. We are used to occasional flurries of violence, death, demonstrations, and more violence. But if this does escalate, Mrs Clinton and Senator Mitchell can stay away. Bill’s stupidity will not have caused anything, but it may make its small contribution to getting in the way of Americans’ efforts to calm Israelis.
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University